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Inaccurate situational awareness: Fires and firefighting

Hazard Knowledge

In exercising their statutory duties and powers under the relevant and current legislation, fire and rescue services will encounter, and should expect to deal with, fires of various types (as detailed in BS EN 2: 1992 - Classification of fires) and sizes, in a wide range of locations, environments and contexts.

In any fire situation, regardless of size or type, the fundamental factor for all fire and rescue services will be locating the fire. This may be establishing the location of the incident or the potentially more complex task of finding the fire in a building, structure or vessel.

Locating a fire will depend on many competing factors and pressures but, in simple terms, it relies on gathering information, sharing intelligence, reconnaissance and, above all, effective communication and liaison between individuals, teams and other agencies/responsible authorities. Further information can be found in the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP), joint decision making model.

From the moment the incident commander and firefighters are notified and mobilised to a fire, information, both factual and predictive, will begin to flow. It is essential for the incident commander to ensure that everyone adopts an approach that enables them to manage the information they receive methodically, so they assimilate the data and begin to assess what can often be a complex, dynamic and chaotic situation.

At any incidents involving fire, information will present itself to the incident commander and firefighters from multiple sources, in numerous forms and not necessarily in an entirely expected order. Some of this will be factual information and some largely predictive information.

  • Factual information can be defined as accurate data from sources such as:
    • Prior knowledge, including information from pre-incident planning Site-Specific Risk Information (SSRI), tactical plans, business fire safety and site visits/inspections. See National Operational Guidance: Operations for further information.
    • Reliable sources, such as information from a responsible person, the owner/occupier of a building, a building engineer or other agencies
    • Directly observed information - time of day, temperature, weather conditions, signs and symptoms of flashover or backdraught.
    • Topography

The incident commander and firefighters will, in most situations, rely heavily on fire control rooms as their primary source of factual information. This information will be vital and will support the initial assessment and evaluation of what is likely to be encountered on arrival.

Assessing and evaluating an incident will often be the key determining factor in the overall success or failure of a firefighting operation. It is therefore important that the information gained at this stage as part of the dynamic risk assessment (DRA) is used carefully to build a picture of the situation, identify the respective hazards, determine the immediate priorities, actions and subsequently the tactics (offensive or defensive), to ultimately establish the resources that may be required to bring the fire under control as safely as possible.

Especially when responding to an incident involving fire, at a very early stage the incident commander will need to consider their priorities, with the primary objective always being to save lives. This should include keeping firefighters safe as well as performing rescues. The remaining priorities will normally include preventing surrounding risks or buildings being exposed, containing the fire in a specific area and, of course, extinguishing the fire.

With the exception of saving lives, these tactical priorities do not take particular precedence or follow a hierarchy, and it may be that in carrying out any one of them, the others are dealt with simultaneously. For example, a rapid intervention with limited resources may bring the fire under control quickly. This will in turn support containment, reduce likely spread and lead to the fire being extinguished.

Interpreting data and information from the various sources available will allow crews to identify, negotiate and establish safe approach, and access and egress to and from the proximity of the fire for attending resources.

Reference to the historical knowledge, intelligence, risk information and data gathered by a fire and rescue service and during pre-planning events such as site visits will also be vital.

See National Operational Guidance: Operations for further information.

By the time the incident commander and firefighters arrive at an incident they will have begun to formulate a basic initial plan. However, once in attendance on the fire ground, they will be in a better position to collect further predictive information and verify the facts to help locate the fire. This may come from interviewing and interrogating a range of data sets including:

  • The original caller - See National Operational Guidance: Operations for information on call handling and mobilising
  • The responsible person - National Operational Guidance: Operations for further information
  • An appointed competent person
  • Casualties, the public and bystanders - See National Operational Guidance: Incident Command
  • Information gathered from fire and rescue service personnel and other emergency responders. See National Operational Guidance: Incident command for information on briefing and debriefing
  • Interrogation of systems and technologies including fire detection and fire protection systems - See National Operational Guidance: Fires in buildings for further information
  • Mobile data systems

The incident commander and firefighters may also consider using a variety of skills, knowledge and items of fire and rescue service equipment, individually or in combination, to identify the exact location of a fire, including:

  • A scene survey of the area or building to give a visual and sensory appreciation of all immediate priorities and hazards
  • Thermal scanning of the structure, building or immediate area to highlight hotspots or help identify the position or extent of fire or to locate casualties
  • Interrogation of building systems, such as automatic fire alarm (AFA) systems and CCTV, that may assist in identifying the exact location of the fire

As well as gathering all available information and possessing the necessary professional firefighting skills, knowledge and equipment, it is important that firefighters make effective use of the simple information that may be presented to them in a fire situation. Identifying, understanding and reading the key information available through human senses (sight, sound, smell, and touch) are vital skills that may help firefighters to identify the location of a fire in any environment.

For example, when dealing with a fire in the open environment, a firefighter may be able to use all of their senses to help locate the fire; they may be able to see the fire itself or the fire gases or smoke being given off.

This may also help to give an immediate indication of the size or extent of the fire or help in identifying key hazards such as flashover or backdraught and their inherent signs and symptoms.

The ability of firefighters to interpret smoke, including its volume, velocity, colour, density, movement and behaviour, can be useful predictive information. Sometimes even the smell from a distance can give clues to what may be involved; for example, burning foodstuffs, overheating electrical equipment, burning wood or paper have fairly distinctive odours.

Direct observation will often provide good predictive information about a fire. However, this should always be considered alongside more accurate factual information about the building and the incident. For example, visible flames can indicate where a fire is and its intensity, but in isolation this may not tell the entire story. Equally, flaming combustion, blackened windows or smoke coming from a window may seem to indicate that a fire is contained in a specific room but it is possible that it could be spreading through unseen structural voids that exist in many buildings, including timber-framed buildings.

It may not always be possible to pinpoint the location of a fire solely from an exterior view; from the information gained during the scene survey alone or where it is not possible to undertake a full scene survey. It may therefore be necessary to commit firefighters to a fire situation to provide internal reconnaissance.

In these circumstances, crews should be specifically tasked and given a clear briefing that allows them to operate safely and effectively. Inside a building they can use direct observation and senses to feed factual and predictive information to the incident commander who will be in a position outside a building or remote from the immediate fire zone.

Where the prevailing conditions of the fire or smoke limit visibility, firefighters can look, listen or feel for indicators such as changes in temperature (radiant heat), or the light from the flicker of a flame from a specific direction that may lead them to the seat of fire. Other simple signs and symptoms like the distortion of superficial parts of a structure, blistered surface finishes or smoke percolating through gaps may help find the fire.

The skills, knowledge and experience of the incident commander and firefighters are vital to the successful execution of any fire attack or suppression plan. However, emergency fire vehicles, equipment and resources will also be integral to supporting any attack.

To assist in locating the fire, thermal imaging equipment is particularly effective; handheld devices can assist firefighters in pinpointing the location of a fire. It can be used both internally and externally to scan a structure or area of a fire. Thermal imaging equipment has the additional benefit of enhancing overall firefighter safety as well as being a valuable item that breathing apparatus (BA) search and rescue teams can use to locate casualties.

Most police helicopters, including those operated by the National Police Air Service (NPAS), have thermal imaging equipment. This may be something that fire and rescue services can explore as part of local liaison and interoperability. Some service may have access to drones or unmanned aerial vehicles with live video and infrared capabilities. The facility is particularly effective at large-scale fires, such as wildfire events, which have the potential to spread and cover large geographical areas.

By considering some of these simple measures and developing them further in local procedures, fire and rescue services can ensure that firefighters are in a position to quickly assess and evaluate the situation, make an informed judgement about the location of the fire and begin to find out what is burning (type of fire) and the extent to which the fire has spread (physics of combustion).

This will subsequently enable them to make clear decisions about the overall priorities, tactics and plans needed to intervene and extinguish the fire, including the firefighting method and the type of firefighting media to deal with the situation in the safest, most appropriate and efficient manner, preventing, limiting and minimising damage from fire and firefighting operations.